Press release: Using inhalers can lead to mocking and social exclusion for teenagers

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Teenagers with asthma are embarrassed to use their inhalers even though they could prevent life-threatening asthma attacks, a new study by the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research has found.

The research, published in BMJ Open, analysed posts written by teenagers and their parents from Asthma UK’s online forum between 2006 and 2016.  It found that the social stigma of asthma can play a role in teenagers choosing not to use their inhalers.

Through the forum, teenagers often talked about feeling embarrassed about being diagnosed with asthma and having to use an inhaler. Some said that people around them had negative reactions to their condition which could lead to mocking and social exclusion.

Several reasons were given as barriers to using their inhalers including:

  • Asthma being portrayed on TV and in films as an emotional problem suffered by anxious people
  • Dislike of being labelled with a chronic illness
  • Shape of some inhalers ‘resemble sex toys’
  • Concerns about side effects such as weight gain and spots
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of routine
  • Not having a good inhaler technique

Lead researcher Dr Anna De Simoni, from the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research at Queen Mary University of London, said: “I was surprised by the stigma associated with asthma and using inhalers. I don’t think I have ever discussed this aspect in my consultations with teenagers. 

“I am a GP and these findings have changed my own practice.  I now check social issues associated with asthma diagnosis and inhaler treatment and discuss how accepting my patients are of their inhaler devices and potential side effects. I take more time to talk to teenagers and their parents about their roles in dealing with the practicalities of treatment, like managing prescriptions and reminding them of inhaler taking times.”

There is a high prevalence of asthma among teenagers and a greater rate of asthma attacks, hospitalisation and death than in younger children. The chance of an asthma attack is reduced when a person uses their preventer inhaler more than 80% of the time as recommended by their GP or asthma nurse, but research suggests that for teenagers usage can be as low as low as 25-35%.

Dr Andrew Whittamore, GP and Clinical Lead at Asthma UK, said: “It is concerning that that the social stigma of asthma continues to be underestimated. We need to be acutely aware of how children and young adults have a need to feel normal. I have seen many cases where the social stigma of having an illness or requiring medication has had a real and lasting impact on social development and psychological wellbeing.

“This research shows that urgent action needs to be taken to improve awareness of asthma. Regularly taking a preventer inhaler is important to treat the underlying inflammation that leads to symptoms and a higher risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.”

Dr Matt Jameson Evans, Chief Medical Officer of HealthUnlocked, said: “Anonymous health platforms and online communities harbour important insights that are often difficult to find anywhere else. 

“By analysing the data and personal experiences shared in the Asthma UK forum on HealthUnlocked, these researchers have been able to better identify the barriers to inhaler usage and self management across the disease, within a group that are traditionally hard to engage. Overcoming these barriers should be prioritised, when the consequences can be so drastic, and at such an early age.”

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Notes to Editors:

For more information, please contact the Asthma UK media team on mediaoffice@asthma.org.uk, 020 7786 4949 (during office hours) or 07951 721393 (outside of office hours).

The Asthma UK Data Portal is a new online tool for journalists to explore trends in asthma outcomes across the UK. Information on asthma facts and statistics can also be found on our website.

About Asthma UK

  • In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children (1 in 11) and 4.3 million adults (1 in 12).
  • Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.
  • Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack.
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk

About Queen Mary University of London

  • Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) is one of the UK’s leading universities, and one of the largest institutions in the University of London, with 23,120 students from more than 155 countries.
  • A member of the Russell Group, QMUL work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our research. In the most recent national assessment of the quality of research, QMUL were placed ninth in the UK (REF 2014).
  • As well as the main site at Mile End – which is home to one of the largest self-contained residential campuses in London – QMUL has campuses at Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square, and West Smithfield dedicated to the study of medicine, and a base for legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
  • QMUL has a rich history in London with roots in Europe’s first public hospital, St Barts; England’s first medical school, The London; one of the first colleges to provide higher education to women, Westfield College; and the Victorian philanthropic project, the People’s Palace at Mile End.
  • Today, as well as retaining these close connections to the local community, QMUL is known for its international collaborations in both teaching and research.
  • QMUL has an annual turnover of £350m, a research income worth £125m (2014/15), and generates employment and output worth £700m to the UK economy each year.

About HealthUnlocked 

  • HealthUnlocked is the third largest health website in the UK and in the top 20 globally.
  • With over 600,000 members and approximately 40 million users per year, the website increases patient engagement and contributes to improved health outcomes, through use of its online health and wellbeing forums/communities.